Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED (1969) is often cited as one of Spain’s most important and influential horror films but its audience is typically restricted to genre fanatics. The highly sexualized content and graphic murders depicted in this gothic thriller limit its appeal. But the commercial success of THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED during the late 1960s helped pave the way for the post-Franco Spanish horror boom of the 1970s and its influence can be seen in the work of many directors including Dario Argento (SUSPIRIA; 1976) and Massimo Dallamano (WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; 1972).
Serrador’s film takes place at an isolated boarding school where troubled young women are being taught by a sadistic headmistress who goes by the name of Madame Fourneau (Lilli Palmer). The imposing Madame enjoys disciplining her female students with a whip followed by a tender kiss. When an attractive young French girl named Theresa (Cristina Galbó) enrolls and is given a tour of the grounds it quickly becomes apparent that something odd is going on at the elusive boarding school. Unseen eyes seem to follow Teresa’s every move and the tense atmosphere is punctuated by the headmistress’s cursory behavior. The other young women at the school immediately take an interest in Teresa and she becomes an object of adoration and scorn for one particular student by the name of Irene (Mary Maude). Irene is Madame Fourneau’s right-hand girl and she enjoys helping the headmistress discipline her fellow classmates.
Adding to the mounting tension is the addition of Madame Fourneau’s handsome son Louis (John Moulder-Brown) who is at the school due to his poor health. His domineering mother insists on isolating him from her female pupils who she feels aren’t “good enough” for him. The headmistress wants her son to meet someone like herself who will look after him and keep him safe but Louis isn’t interested in following her advice. It soon becomes apparent that he’s been spying on the girls at the school as well as starting up relationships with a few of them so when an unknown killer begins stalking the students it’s easy to assume that Louis might be the murderer but he’s not the only suspect. There’s the lurking gardener (Vic Israel) who seems to also enjoy spying on the students and of course, the headmistress herself comes under scrutiny along with the cruel Irene. Director and co-writer Narciso Ibáñez Serrador keeps the audience guessing until the film’s final moments and the plot’s unpredictable twists and turns should surprise many viewers.
The film’s held together by the great performances of the entire cast as well as Waldo de los Ríos’s exceptional score. The award-winning actress Lilli Palmer is appropriately chilling as Madame Fourneau and brings a strange sincerity to her performance due to her previous role in the 1958 adaptation of MAEDCHEN IN UNIFORM where she played a teacher who becomes involved in a romantic entanglement with one of her female students (Romy Schneider).
Cristina Galbó (WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO SOLANGE?; 1972, LET SLEEPING CORPSES LIE; 1974, THE KILLER MUST KILL AGAIN; 1975) is also terrific as the sensitive Teresa but I’m particularly fond of Mary Maude’s portrayal of the ruthless and determined Irene. Irene isn’t a particularly likable character and she’s forced to do all kinds of despicable things but Maude’s intense portrayal makes her utterly unforgettable. Mary Maude appeared in an interesting batch of thrillers in the 1970s including CRUCIBLE OF TERROR (1971), SCORPIO (1973) and TERROR (1978). But she really gets the opportunity to show off her acting chops in THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED.
John-Moulder Brown is also exceptional as Madame’s isolated son, Louis. He’s an attractive young man with popstar appeal and child-like features who posseses a charming personality so it’s easy to understand why the young women at the school are drawn to him. Moulder-Brown was a fascinating figure in the late 1960s. He seemed to encapsulate the troubled and frustrated spirit of swinging London as the decade came to a close. With his good looks and mod appearance, he was able to subvert audience expectations in films like this one as well as DEEP END (1970) and VAMPIRE CIRCUS (1972).
THE HOUSE THE SCREAMED is an interesting forerunner to Italian giallo films that would become extremely popular in Europe during the 1970s as well as slasher films familiar to American horror fans. The murders that occur are particularly unsettling because they take place in an exclusive girl’s school and young women in similar circumstances are typically portrayed as virginal and vulnerable.
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador shoots the gruesome killings in slow-motion so the audience becomes keenly aware of every violent act and the tension is almost suffocating at times due to composer Waldo de los Ríos’s chilling score. The Sadean undertones and lesbian relationships hinted at in the script are occasionally brought to the surface but they’re never fully exploited. It’s apparent that Madame Fourneau is abusing the young women under her care and many of them are openly acting out. The repressed and conservative environment of the school has severely affected the girl’s behavior and any real feelings they have for one another or the men they come into contact with are expressed in brutal fashion without tenderness or compassion.
The idyllic boarding school in THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED might seem like an odd setting for Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s horror film but the director seems to enjoy isolating his characters in claustrophobic environments. This is also evident in the second and last horror film he directed, WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? (1972).
Both of Serrador’s horror films are highly political and critical of Franco’s reign of terror, which is evident in the way they examine class structures, explore the repressed emotions of their middle and upper-class characters and focus on the behavior of children taking out their frustrations on the adults around them as well as each other. But THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED is rooted in the gothic trappings of classic horror literature and “old dark house” style films, which makes it somewhat easier to enjoy. While I greatly admire and appreciate WHO CAN KILL A CHILD? it’s not a film that I’m eager to return to but THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED begs for multiple viewings.
THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED has been released on video and DVD numerous times but prints differ wildly in content and quality. The film was often edited for television and these censored prints found their way into many distributor’s hands. I honestly don’t know if I’ve seen the entire film without any cuts but you can currently view THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED at Hulu.com as part of Elvira’s Movie Macabre. The horror hostess has her own channel on Hulu and during the 1980s she regularly screened THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED on her television program, which is where I first saw it. You can also currently stream the film at Amazon.
100 European Horror Films edited by Steven Jay Schneider
Immoral Tales by Cathal Tohill & Pete Tombs
Spanish Popular Cinema by Antonio Lázaro-Reboll & Andrew Willis
by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published in 2011 at TCM.com